Choosing the most sustainable can be daunting when faced with various plant-based milk options. Conventional dairy milk generates roughly three times the greenhouse gases of any plant-based alternative and contributes significantly to methane emissions.
Switching to plant-based milk is a step toward more sustainable food systems. But remember, not all alternatives are equally eco-friendly, with variations in their environmental impact.
For insights into selecting the best option for sustainability, check out the guides at the end of this post, considering factors like environmental footprint, cost, and taste.
1. Oat Milk
Oat milk is quite popular these days. Plant-based milk now accounts for 16% of all retail milk dollar sales, and oat milk is the second most popular option on the market right now (with almond milk being the first).
From an environmental perspective, the crop (Avena sativa) doesn’t require a lot of water since it grows in cooler weather, allowing the crops to retain moisture. To put this into perspective, a liter of oat milk requires 48 liters of water. Regarding GHG emissions, one glass of oat milk equals about 0.4 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. Not bad numbers if you ask me!
Oat milk also has great health benefits since it contains calcium, vitamin D, and B vitamins like riboflavin (B2) and vitamin B12. It is lactose, nut, and soy free and is made from certified gluten oats. Oat milk can also be an option for those with gluten intolerance or allergy.
So, is oat milk the most sustainable vegan milk? Not so fast! One downside of oat milk is the pesticides and fertilizers required to grow the crop. According to the USDA, over 60% of oat crops are treated with pesticides, and 75% are treated with chemical fertilizers.
2. Hemp Milk
If you are into sustainability like me, you have probably heard about hemp before. Hemp fabric is praised as a sustainable alternative to plastic-based fabrics like polyester and nylon. The hemp plant fibers are super versatile and can be used as a textile, as a construction material, and for pulp and paper or hemp-based plastics.
At first glance, hemp milk seems like the answer to our prayers! It doesn't need pesticides or much water to grow since the plant is extremely resistant to diseases and produces a lot of shade. It's also low in saturated fats and is a good source of omega-3. Unfortunately, one downside to hemp milk is that it can be quite expensive, like many hemp-based products.
3. Coconut Milk
Coconuts are native to southeast Asia and have spread throughout the tropics… so you know the emissions from food transportation are higher with this one. Monoculture farming has also become an issue where coconuts are grown, which can negatively impact the biodiversity of the surrounding area.
Moreover, in regions like the Philippines, Indonesia, and India, workers involved in coconut farming are often underpaid and exploited.
However, coconut trees generally don't require much fertilizer or pesticide and grow in places with more than enough water.
It is also fairly easy to find coconut milk with an organic certification since the product is so popular - this way, you can ensure you are going chemical-free and boosting the environmental benefits of drinking coconut milk.
4. Rice Milk
Rice milk has a heavier carbon footprint than oat or almond milk, which isn't great. It also requires more water than oat milk (about 54 liters of water per glass) but slightly less water than almond milk. Rice milk also offers little nutrition compared to other options on this list.
However, when you compare it to dairy milk, rice milk still wins in emissions, land use, and water use, it is still a win (just a smaller one)!
5. Cashew Milk
While cashews can be grown in the US, they are mostly produced in India, Africa, and Vietnam - meaning food miles and more GHG emissions!
Another concern with cashew milk is human rights issues. According to Human Rights Watch, many workers forced to work in cashew farming are underpaid and in precarious situations.
Workers are suffering from hand burns, respiratory problems, and allergic reactions. As a result, a very small percentage of cashews on the market are Fair Trade Certified.
Yes, cashews are good for you and are technically more environmentally friendly than dairy milk, but their place on the sustainable milk podium is still up for debate.
6. Pea Milk
Pea milk is very healthy! It has higher levels of proteins, calcium, vitamin D, and other micronutrients (compared to other milk on this list). Some people also love pea milk because it tastes like cow's milk. It also uses much less water and fertilizer to produce than almonds. Win-win-win!
7. Hazelnut Milk
Hazelnuts grow in areas with naturally higher rainfall in Southern Europe and North America, requiring less irrigation.
While tasty, hazelnut milk isn’t super popular yet, and its benefits and environmental downsides must be explored more. Also, a fun fact is that the wind pollutes hazelnuts rather than bees…. Very interesting!
8. Flax Milk
Flax milk (from flax seeds) is a good option for those with an allergy to nuts and still want a good source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. It is also just as high in calcium as dairy milk!
From a nutritional perspective, flax milk is awesome…. But what about the environment? Industrial flax production occurs in the US, Canada, India, China, Europe, and Africa. The plant fibers are extremely versatile and can be used for oils, animal feed, and spun into cloth.
One study found that to grow the same amount of almonds, you would need 15 times more water! Lastly, flaxseed is non-GMO and requires fewer chemicals like fertilizer or pesticides.
9. Potato Milk
I know this one sounds a bit gross, but hear me out. Potato milk is a blend of water, potatoes, rapeseed oil, and sugars and tastes mild. While I can’t say much about taste, from a sustainability perspective, potato milk is fabulous!
Growing potatoes is extremely land efficient and uses half as much water as almonds. Potatoes are also nutritious; potato milk contains many minerals, vitamins, carbs, and fiber.
Potato milk is a lesser-known dairy alternative, but it's a great option for those with nut, soy, or grain allergies. Making it at home is easy, and the resulting milk is mild in flavor and creamy texture.
10. Almond Milk
Last but not least… We have almond milk! If you had asked me a few years ago, “What is the most sustainable nut milk?” there is a good chance I might have said almond milk.
Almond milk is one of the most popular dairy milk alternatives and has been available to American consumers for quite some time.
While better than dairy, almonds require more water than any other option on his list (one liter of almond milk requires 371 liters of water to produce).
Even more concerning is that a good portion of almonds are grown in California and almond farmers have been criticized for depleting California's groundwater systems.
PLUS, almond milk is notorious for being bad for the bees! According to the Guardian, nearly 70% of commercial bees in the US are drafted every spring to pollinate almonds.
11. An honorable mention on the most sustainable plant-based milk list… soy milk!
Soy milk, once a frontrunner in sustainable milk alternatives, has been at the heart of various debates over the past few years. From concerns about hormones to their environmental impact, let's dissect the claims and see where soy milk truly stands.
Pros of Soy Milk:
- Lower Environmental Impact: Compared to cow's milk, soy milk boasts reduced CO2 emissions and water consumption. When put side by side with oat milk, they're on relatively equal footing regarding their environmental footprint.
- Nitrogen Fixation: As a legume, soy has a unique ability to fix nitrogen, enriching the soil it's grown in. This property is a potential candidate for sustainable farming practices, benefiting subsequent crops.
- Initiatives for Better Farming Practices: Recognizing soy's potential and its current challenges, organizations like the WWF and US Soy (comprising American soybean farmers) are investing efforts to develop more sustainable and responsible soy cultivation techniques.
Cons of Soy Milk:
- Hormone Concerns: One of soy milk's most widely debated aspects is its hormone content, particularly phytoestrogens. While some voiced concerns about the potential link between high soy consumption and breast cancer risk, the consensus among recent studies indicates that the risks are likely overstated. Still, the public's concern about this perceived correlation caused a temporary wane in soy milk's popularity.
- Environmental Challenges: Despite its lower carbon footprint, soy cultivation has downsides. It's linked to substantial soil erosion, particularly in South America. Moreover, soy farming has become a key driver of deforestation, particularly in regions like the Amazon.
- Societal Impacts: Beyond environmental concerns, soy cultivation in Brazil and Argentina has been blamed for uprooting small farming communities. The large-scale soy monoculture can edge out smallholder farmers, potentially leading to socioeconomic disparities. Additionally, there are notable issues related to workers' rights and exploitation.
- Large-scale Production: While soybeans have diverse applications, a significant portion of the world's soy crop goes to animal feed. Major soy-producing nations like Brazil, Argentina, and the US collectively account for about 80% of global soybean cultivation. The massive demand for soy often means that sustainability takes a back seat.
If you're considering soy milk as your milk alternative of choice, it might be wise to prioritize organic soy products. Given the concerns associated with South American soy, looking for sources outside this region can also be a responsible choice. As with most things, being an informed consumer allows you to make decisions that align with your health and ethical values.
Which plant-based milk is the most sustainable?
There are a few factors to consider when deciding which is the most sustainable non-dairy milk:
Water: How much water is required in the farming and processing of the crop?
Deforestation: Is the crop linked to deforestation and clear-cutting to make space for farmland?
GHG emissions: Does the production and transportation of the crop create unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions?
Packaging and waste: Is the product packaged and shipped in unsustainable materials that cannot be disposed of in an environmentally friendly way?
Pro tip: You can minimize your environmental impact by learning how to preserve your food and purchasing food in more sustainable food packaging. Buying food grown using regenerative farming principles is also your best bet!
Working conditions and wages: Are the individuals involved in the farming and processing of the product paid a fair wage? Are they working in safe conditions?
GMOs and organic: Are there chemicals or modern processes involved at any stage that might harm human health?
Other factors to consider When Shopping for the Most Sustainable Milk
Cost: Is the milk alternative within budget? Some can be quite expensive!
Certifications: Does the product have any sustainable certifications to give it credibility?
Pro tip: one of the best sustainable shopping tips is to look for certifications. With plant-based milk, I would look for Fair Trade and USDA organic when possible. I would recommend doing the same when looking for organic tea brands.
Local and homemade options: Could you make your own version of the product to minimize the negative impacts of commercial options?
A final word on milk alternatives
All the milk alternatives discussed today are better for people and the planet! The most sustainable milk alternative is the one that has a low impact in terms of emissions, land use, and water use, as well as holds credible sustainable certifications.
Other factors you can also think about include food miles and cost…. Or try and make your own sustainable milk! Comment below if you give any of these options a try (or make your own), and let me know how it goes.